My dear friend Bernard,
Thanks for your letter and thanks above all for the
photographs, which give me some idea of your work. In fact, my
brother wrote to me on the subject not long ago, and told me he
was greatly taken with the harmony of the colours and the
dignity of many of the figures.
But now look, though I found the landscape in L'adoration
des Mages so beautiful that I wouldn't dare say a word against
it, you surely can't seriously imagine a confinement like that,
in the middle of the road, with the mother starting to pray
instead of suckling her child? Those bloated frogs of priests
on their knees as though they're having an epileptic fit are
also part of it, God alone knows how and why!
No, I can't call that sound, for if I am at all capable of
spiritual ecstasy, then I feel exalted in the face of truth, of
what is possible, which means I bow down before the study - one
that had enough power in it to make a Millet tremble - of
peasants carrying a calf born in the fields back home to the
farm. That, my friend, is what people everywhere, from France
to America, have felt. And having performed a feat like that,
can you really contemplate reverting to medieval tapestries?
Can that really be what you mean to do? No! You can do better
than that, and know that you must look for what is possible,
logical and true, even if that means turning your back on those
Parisian things à la Baudelaire. How I prefer
Daumier to that fellow!
An Annunciation? Of what - I see figures of angels -
quite elegant, no doubt - a terrace with two cypresses which I
like very much. There is an enormous amount of sky, of
brightness but, once over this first impression, I wonder if
the whole thing is not a misrepresentation, and then the
figures lose their meaning for me.
Let me make it perfectly clear that I was looking forward to
seeing the sort of things that are in that painting of yours
which Gauguin has, those Breton women walking in a meadow so
beautifully composed, the colour with such naive distinction.
And you are trading that in for something - I won't prevaricate
- bogus, spurious!
Last year you did a painting 1 which - according
to what Gauguin told me - looked, I believe, something like
[A sketch of the painting was drawn here.]
on a grassy foreground, the figure of a young girl in a blue
or whitish dress, lying stretched out full-length; on the
second plane the edge of a beech wood, the ground covered with
fallen red leaves, vertical grey-green tree trunks across it.
Her hair, I think, is in a tint that serves as a complementary
colour to the white dress: black if that garment is white,
orange if it is blue. Well, I said to myself what a simple
subject and how well he knows how to create grace from
Gauguin also mentioned another subject, just three trees,
the effect of orange foliage against a blue sky, but with very
clear outlines, very strictly divided into planes of
contrasting, clear colours - splendid!
And when I compare that with the nightmare of a Christ au
jardin des oliviers, then, good God, I mourn, and with this
letter I ask you once more, shouting at the top of my voice:
please try to be yourself again! Le Christ portant sa croix is
appalling. Are those touches of colour in it meant to be
harmonious? I cannot forgive your using a
cliché, yes, a cliché, for
When Gauguin was in Arles, I once or twice allowed myself to
be led astray into abstraction, as you know, for instance in
the Berceuse, in the Woman Reading a Novel,
black against a yellow bookcase. At the time,
I considered abstraction an attractive method. But that was
delusion, dear friend, and one soon comes up against a brick
I don't say one might not try one's hand at it after a whole
life long of experimentation, of hand-to-hand struggle with
nature, but personally, I don't want to trouble my head with
such things. All year I was doing little things after nature,
without giving a thought to impressionism or whatever else. And
yet, once again I allowed myself to be led astray into reaching
for stars that are too big - another failure - and I have had
my fill of that.
So right now I'm working in the olive grove in search of all
sorts of effects of grey sky against yellow soil, with a
grey-green hue in the foliage, and then again with the soil and
the leaves all purple against a yellow sky, or a red-ochre soil
and green-pink sky. Yes, I do find that more interesting than
the above-named abstractions.
The reason I haven't written for so long is that I've been
trying to keep on top of my illness and was reluctant to enter
into discussions, sensing danger in those abstractions. If one
carries on working quietly, beautiful subjects come of their
own accord. Believe me, it is of the utmost importance to
immerse oneself in reality, without any preconceived ideas,
without any Parisian prejudice.
As it happens, I'm not at all satisfied with this year, but
it may yet provide a solid basis for the next. I have feasted
upon the air in the hills and the orchards. For the rest l
shall have to wait and see. My ambition reaches no further than
a few clods of earth, sprouting wheat, an olive grove, a
cypress - the last, for instance, far from easy to do.
How is it possible that you, who like the primitives and
study them, don't know Giotto? Gauguin and l saw a tiny little
panel of his in Montpelier, the death of some holy woman or
other. In it, the expression of pain and ecstasy is so human
that, even though we are in the middle of the 19th
century, one could think and feel one was there, so much does
one share the emotion.
If I were to see the canvases themselves, I might well be
enchanted by the colour, but you also mention portraits you've
done that are striking likenesses. That's good, and you will
have put more of yourself into them.
Now a description of a canvas that is in front of me at the
moment A view of the garden of the asylum where I am staying;
to the right a grey terrace and a part of the house. A few faded rose bushes, the garden
to the left - red ochre - scorched by the sun, covered with pine needles. The
edge of the garden is planted with large pines with red-ochre
trunks and branches, the green foliage darkened with a mixture
of black. These tall trees stand out against a yellow evening
sky crossed with purple stripes, the yellow yielding to pink
and green higher up. A wall - also red ochre - bars the view
and only a purple and yellow-ochre hill appears above it. The
nearest tree has an enormous trunk but has been struck by
lightning and sawn off. However, a branch still juts high up
into the air and sends down a rain of dark green needles. This
sombre giant - with its hurt pride - contrasts, if you were to
lend it human characteristics, with the pale smile of a last
rose on the fading bush in front of it. Under the big trees,
empty stone benches, mournful little box trees, the sky is
reflected - yellow - in a puddle after the rain. A ray of sun
turns the dark ochre into orange with its last reflection.
Small black figures wander about here and there among the tree
Of course, you realize that the combination of red ochre,
green darkened with grey and the black stripes indicating the
contours, arouses that anguished feeling, the so-called
“black-and-reds,” with which some of my fellow
patients are afflicted. Moreover, the motif of the great tree,
struck by lightning, the wan pink-green smile of the last
autumn flower, serve to reinforce this impression.
Another canvas shows a rising sun above a field of young
wheat - receding lines, furrows that run to the top of the
canvas, towards a wall and a row of lilac hills. The field is purple and yellow-green.
The white sun is surrounded by a large yellow halo. Here, in contrast to the
first canvas, I have tried to express calmness, great
I am telling you about these canvases, and about the first
one in particular, to remind you that one can express anguish
without making direct reference to the actual Gethsemane, and
that there is no need to portray figures from the Sermon on the
Mount in order to express a comforting and gentle motif.
Oh, it is only right and proper to be moved by the Bible,
but present-day reality has so strong a hold over us that even
when we try to imagine the past the minor events in our lives
immediately wrench us out of our musings, and our own
adven-tures throw us back irrevocably upon our personal
feelings: joy, boredom, suffering, anger or a smile.
The Bible, the Bible! Millet, who grew up with it from
childhood, did nothing but read that book! And yet he never, or
hardly ever, painted biblical pictures. Corot did do a Mount of
Olives, with Christ and the evening star, sublime. In his work
you can feel Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles and sometimes the
Gospels as well, but so discreetly and always taking account of
all the modern feelings that all of us share.
But what of Delacroix, you may ask. Yes, Delacroix - but
then you would have to study quite a lot more, indeed, you
would have to make a study of history before you could depict
things as he did.
So, my dear fellow, those biblical paintings of yours are
hopeless. There are only a few who make such a mistake, and a
mistake it is, but once you have turned your back on it, I dare
say the results will be marvellous! Sometimes our mistakes show
us the right way.
Come now, make up for it by painting your garden just as it
is, or any way you like. Anyhow, it's a good idea to put
something worthy, something noble, into your figures, studies
take real effort and hence are never a waste of time. Being
able to divide a canvas into large intermingling planes, to
devise contrasting lines and forms - that is technique, tricks
of the trade, if you like, but ultimately a sign that your
craftsmanship is being strengthened, and that is all to the
No matter how odious and burdensome painting may be at
present, those who have chosen this profession - if only they
pursue it with zeal - are dutiful, sound and faithful men.
Society often renders our existence hard, and that is the
source of our impotence and of the imperfection of our work. I
believe that even Gauguin suffers greatly from this and cannot
develop, although he has it in him to do so. I myself am
frustrated by a total lack of models. On the other hand, there
are some very beautiful spots around here. I have just finished
5 size 30 canvases of olive groves. What I am doing
is hard, harsh, but that is because I am trying to get back on
my feet with work that is a bit rough, having been afraid that
I would go soft with abstractions.
Have you seen my study of a small reaper, a yellow wheat
field and a yellow sun? It isn't the real thing yet, but at
least I have tackled the devilish problem of yellow in it. I am
referring to the one with the thick impasto and done on the
spot, and not to the copy with the hatchings, which has a much
weaker effect. I'd like to do it in deep sulphur-yellow.
I still have a great deal more to say to you, and though I
can tell you today that my head has grown somewhat calmer, I
used to be afraid of getting excited before I got cured. With a
very cordial handshake in my thoughts, for Anquetin too, and
any other friends should you see them, believe me,
Ever yours, Vincent
P.S. I don't need to tell you how sorry I am for your sake,
as well as for your father's that he did not approve of your
spending the season with Gauguin. The latter wrote me that your
military service has been postponed for a year because of your
health. Thanks all the same for your description of the
Egyptian house. I should have liked to know too whether it is
larger or smaller than a rural cottage in this country - in
short, its proportions in relation to the human figure. But it
is above all about the colouration that I am asking for
Madeline au Bois d'Amour, Musée d'Orsay.
Vincent was absolutely right, the girl's dress is blue and
her hair is orange.
At this time, Vincent was 36 year old
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Emile Bernard. Written c. 20 November 1889 in Saint-Rémy. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number B21.
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